Camp Tawonga has been practicing joyous Judaism in nature since 1925!
In the Beginning
Leaders of the San Francisco Jewish community founded Camp Tawonga to send groups of children to the Sierra Mountains for weeklong rustic adventures. Their goals were simple: make friends and have fun while escaping the cold summers of San Francisco.
Over time, the goals of the Tawonga leadership evolved significantly as the size and impact of its programs grew in quality and popularity. The needs of the community evolved too, as they witnessed war and Holocaust on the one hand and the founding of Israel and the tremendous secular success of the local Jewish community on the other. Tawonga leaders came to realize that the basic camping paradigm was the perfect model for creating the kind of inclusive community they envisioned for San Francisco’s Jewish and secular communities.
Location, location, location
Camp Tawonga was first located in Lake Tahoe but moved to its current location on the Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River in 1964. The beautiful 160-acre property, which is surrounded by nearly one million acres of the Stanislaus National Forest and located a mere 8 miles from the entrance to world-famous Yosemite National Park, was purchased with the help of many of Tawonga’s original campers from the 1920s.
Here’s a video made in 2005 detailing the early years of Tawonga.
Tawonga’s land is an incredible gift that we treasure and share with everyone through our many programs. The earliest known inhabitants of the land were Miwok Indians who left us many signs on the land of their community, including acorn-grinding holes in the center of Camp that we preserve and show the campers as part of our program.
In the 1850s, the California Gold Rush saw the entire area around Tawonga teeming with miners, prospectors, homesteaders, dam builders, railroad workers, and more. Evidence of their presence is still visible on and around Tawonga’s property as well. Every spring, Tawonga hosts 4th grade Jewish day school students from around California who use our property as the staging ground for their California history field trips.
Over the years, Tawonga has hosted and facilitated a plethora of programs beyond traditional summer camp. In the late 60s, Tawonga hosted a concert by Janis Joplin, an acquaintance of our camp director at the time. There was a famed women’s festival with music and workshops on our grounds as well.
In 1991—after the Dalai Lama was told that Jewish summer camp was the key to preserving identity in diaspora—Tawonga hosted emissaries from the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala. Over the course of a summer, the Tibetans learned best practices of cultural continuity that made ethnic identity feel like a gift, not a burden.
In the mid-1990s—with support from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund—Tawonga sharpened its skills in designing culturally relevant programs to bridge gaps between previously alienated communities. This yielded award-winning programs in Palestinian-Jewish Dialogue, multi-racial family camps, and LGBTQ Keshet camp, all using Tawonga’s now renowned expertise in building community through group-centered wilderness adventures.
In 1998—on Israel’s 50th Anniversary—local Jewish leadership recognized the potential at Tawonga to significantly enhance connections between Bay Area and Israeli youth. It was clear to them that the deep friendships created at Camp would form the basis for lifelong relationships between Americans and Israelis and strengthen the enduring bridge between our two nations. The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund was among the first to provide support for bringing Israelis to Camp, beginning with young adult shlichim. Then, beginning in 2003, this Fund provided support to bring Israeli teenagers to Tawonga through our Noar l’Noar (Youth to Youth) program, which we have run for 14 years (Unfortunately, our Noar l’Noar program will not run in 2016 due to funding challenges, but we are actively seeking funds to resume this program for our 2017 season).
Today, tomorrow and beyond
Today, Tawonga reaches the broadest possible range of families because it is not limited to any particular movement or affiliation. Tawonga is owned and operated by the San Francisco-based Tawonga Jewish Community Corporation, and it proactively reaches out to every segment of the population. The net result is that the powerful benefits of Tawonga extend far beyond the traditional boundaries of the organized Jewish community.
Tens of thousands of Bay Area children have grown up at Camp Tawonga, and today, many of our campers are the children and grandchildren of alumni campers and staff. Our mission has remained fundamentally unchanged over the past 87 years: to raise children with high self-esteem, excellent group living skills, a genuine love of nature, and a personal connection with our Jewish culture, customs, and values.